Wake-up Call on the Sector Map

For years, sector-based investors have struggled to achieve diversified exposure to telecom stocks, given the relatively small number of competitors left in that space after decades of aggressive consolidation.

There wasn’t even any point in maintaining a sector fund if it was only going to own concentrated positions in AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), Sprint (NYSE:S) and, for the time being, T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS).

Now that T-Mobile and Sprint have agreed to a merger, fund managers finally have realized that this isn’t even a “sector” anymore in any real sense. It’s just three vast companies and a few regional players around the edges.

That realization was in the background when Standard & Poor’s (S&P) decided to revamp its overall map of the U.S. economy, eliminating telecom once and for all as a sector. S&P replaced it with “communications services,” consisting of big media and big cable along with the surviving voice carriers.

The move makes sense. After all, AT&T now owns Time Warner, cable operator Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) owns NBC and other television channels and the lines separating content distributors from creators haven’t been this thin in generations. While the new sector remains a little narrow — only 26 companies in the official index — the footprint is vast, adding up to 13% of the overall market by capitalization.

Facebook and Google Aren’t Tech Stocks

And that’s the real revelation behind what otherwise could have been a simple index rebalancing cycle. The communications services sector is huge because it formally includes Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) as its biggest components, weighing in at 30% of the total between them. These aren’t formally “technology” stocks any more. In the eyes of the index makers, they’re “communications” stocks now.

By acknowledging this, Standard & Poor’s is sending us all a signal that the stereotype around technology we’ve all carried with us since before the dot-com boom needs to change. Not every company that does business through screens and digital information transfers qualifies for membership in the sector any more. Or to put it differently, technology is ubiquitous now. Every company that matters has an online presence. What differentiates them is their relationship to their systems and their role in the modern economic cycle.

This changes the strategic map as well. Telecom used to be an extremely defensive sector, paying relatively high dividends because the underlying businesses weren’t growing fast and didn’t need to invest heavily to expand. At the right price, they were a great place for my Value Authority investors to lock in healthy yields.

But now that the giants have stepped into the more cyclical media business, they compete more directly with Alphabet, Facebook and other channels for audiences, advertising share and ultimately, our attention. Winners will grow fast and, as we spend more time in front of screens, there’s a lot of room for the winners to thrive. This is now a growth sector, with earnings projected to expand 15% in the current year thanks to Alphabet, Facebook and their peers.

Amazon and Netflix Aren’t Tech Stocks Either

Furthermore, the consumer discretionary sector is no longer a world of old-fashioned department stores and consumer brands adapting to an Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) world. At this point, even the most conventional brick-and-mortar retail chains have an online presence, and Amazon has flirted with building its own network of physical stores.

There’s no longer a bright line separating the “online” merchants from the rest, which is why Amazon is no longer formally a technology company in the eyes of Standard & Poor’s and other index makers. It’s a consumer discretionary company. So is Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX). They sell products and services to consumers just like any other retail organization. The only difference is that they do it directly.

What’s remarkable here is that consumer discretionary funds have been some of the best performers in the market year to date (YTD), but it’s all Amazon and Netflix. Retail stocks aren’t suffering as much as some people think — the group is more vibrant than it has been in years — but factor out Amazon and Netflix and a 19 percent YTD gain for the sector shrinks to 6 percent. Yes, these two stocks alone are big enough and moving fast enough to contribute 65 percent of all performance within the sector as a whole.

Now I’ve just mentioned every single member of the traditional “FANG” group that we’ve traded around to such great effect in my Turbo Trader service. According to S&P, none of these are actually technology stocks any more. And that’s why it’s getting treacherous to assume that all gigantic companies with roots in Silicon Valley always will move in the same direction or at the same speed.

Amazon and Netflix rely on the consumer. Facebook and Alphabet are enmeshed in the larger media struggle for eyeballs and ad dollars. Granted, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) remain true tech stocks according to the new classifications, but they’re not in the FANG, are they?

Technology was always a transitional category anyway. It’s where the leading edge of innovation and disruptive productivity gains were concentrated from the 1990s until today. True technology companies will remain disruptive while the rest will eventually become mainstream, part of the status quo. Those are the companies we target in my GameChangers service — the ones that are literally changing the corporate landscape.

Arguably a lot of that innovation is in the health care sector now, but that’s another story. For now, the lesson is that definitions change as the economy evolves. Our job is to remain ahead of the curve.